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Open Windows: A Twisted Techno-Thriller

The title of writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s “Open Windows” thriller refers to the different windows on a computer’s desktop, as the film uses a single laptop like a central hub to peer into different lives and feeds. Its twisted, unpredictable story displays the visual expansiveness of screenlife filmmaking, zooming back and forth between the many windows on one man’s laptop as he tries to stop the hacker who is making him do the unthinkable. Vigalondo’s film exemplifies the layered storytelling potential of showing many different feeds all at once, especially when technology is presented as a free-for-all for hackers.

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Elijah Wood plays Nick Chambers, who plays a super fan of the fictions actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). The movie starts off with Chambers watching a live stream for an event promoting Goddard’s new film, “Dark Sky,” while snapping screenshots of her in the movie for his website that he’s the webmaster of, JillGoddardCaught.com. Chambers is only blocks away from the event, though, because he’s been chosen to have dinner with Goddard as part of being a contest. Suddenly, as his laptop shows him watching the live stream, he receives a call from a man named Chord (Neil Maskell), a contest organizer with abrupt news that Goddard has canceled on Nick.

Visually obscured in a video chat window, Chord offers Nick a chance to hack into Goddard’s phone—an act of revenge for cancelling. Nick’s acceptance of this opportunity turns out to be a deal with the devil, in which Nick is pushed to commit crimes like spying on her in a hotel room, and tasing her agent. Nick soon loses his sense of choice when he becomes blackmailed himself by Chord, as part of a sick game with a purpose Nick is unaware of. Vigalondo makes the story even more wild when a third party joins the events—a trio of mysterious hackers, who call him Nick “Nevada”; Nick asks them to help him find out more about the man making him do dangerous things, while they have their own suspicion about the man they called Nevada.

Goddard gets caught up in the game as well, as Nick is forced by Chord to invade her privacy in more disturbing ways, and even pressured to do things on camera in Chord’s sick game. In one of its most tense moments, we see Nick on a video screen type threatening things to Goddard that he’s been told to as by Chord, who himself is torturing Goddard’s agent in a video feed, all while the other three hackers watch. In telling such a story, Wood and Grey’s horrified acting is just the beginning—“Open Windows” presents hacked hotel surveillance feeds, police scanners, and iPhone camera signals and more all at once, packaged in a movie that’s like modern Hitchcock.

Nacho Vigalondo and Sasha Grey on set of Open Windows / ShotOnWhat?

Just as the movie has one of the crazier narratives, so does it have one of the more wild approaches to screenlife. The camera zooms in on and then jumps between different windows on Nick’s laptop, sometimes framing shots of Nick looking at the camera less like a window and more like a conventional close-up. This nature of juggling different visual ideas is further pushed by when the movie goes to different feeds, and shares Chord’s perspective in its very twisty third act. In general it’s a busier movie than most screenlife films, showing many different camera feeds, like three windows with four different surveillance feeds in each. It’s comparably more than the Skype chat windows of “Unfriended,” or the different internet searches in “Searching.”

The screenlife format is a unique challenge for any director, and it finds a unique match with Vigalondo. He’s one of the more playful genre directors currently working—he mixed a Kaiju story with a woman’s personal destruction in the monster-comedy “Colossal”—and his experimentation with the screenlife format is further evidence of that. “Open Windows” is the type of thriller that could only be told with what’s on screen, from a visual storyteller ready to build a story out from a laptop’s screen.

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